OpinionCobalt mining

A vulnerability for German automakers

The cobalt mine in Morocco that supplies BMW is suspected of contaminating water with arsenic. Raw material supply remains a vulnerable point for the electric vehicle revolution.

A vulnerability for German automakers

This is likely to fuel the arguments of the critics of electric mobility. According to an investigation by Süddeutscher Zeitung, NDR, WDR, and international partners, a supposedly clean cobalt mine in Morocco that supplies, among others, BMW, is the cause of arsenic-contaminated waters. Combined with the questionable connection of the mine operator to the Moroccan royal family, inadequate occupational safety, and brutal suppression of criticism from the workforce, it creates a toxic mix that has the potential to shatter the positive narrative of the clean electrification of the European automotive industry.

The image of electric cars is already tarnished in parts of the population. Too expensive, limited range, and poor infrastructure – that's the narrative of the skeptics. If the environmental impact is now also called into question, it threatens the success of the electric revolution. It's about more than just BMW and the questionable practices of a Moroccan cobalt mine. It concerns the credibility of an entire industry and the billions it has invested in an electrified future.

German automakers have a lot at stake in this situation, not only because they are heavily invested but also because they still heavily rely on cobalt for their high-performance batteries. The companies are aware of the reputational risks and are involved in the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA) with numerous other Western firms. In the medium term, all automakers aim to move away from the toxic connection to cobalt and nickel producers. Tesla, for instance, already uses cobalt- and nickel-free LFP batteries in its affordable models. VW is working on a "universal cell" that is expected to be cobalt-free, but likely not before 2025.

Car manufacturers are well aware that cobalt mining is often associated with environmental and ethical issues. The Democratic Republic of Congo is the primary source, and issues such as child labor, dangerous working conditions, and groundwater contamination are well documented. This is why BMW had secured other suppliers in Australia and Morocco. However, the scandal is likely hitting the wrong party. Tesla, for instance, is supplied by Huayou Cobalt, a Chinese company that claims to be committed to clean nickel and cobalt production, but only started making these claims after Amnesty International reported child labor and environmental pollution at one of its mines a few years ago. The supply of raw materials remains a dirty business, and for the electric revolution, it seems to be its Achilles' heel.